NEW GLOUCESTER — A group of military veterans grappling with combat wounds from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan discovered the joys of Nordic skiing in the Maine countryside over the weekend.
The beginning skiers are members of Team Semper Fi, a rehabilitative athletic program. For four days, from Thursday through Sunday, volunteers from the Pineland Farms Veterans Adaptive Sports and Training cross-country ski program played host to the veterans, teaching them how to maneuver across the landscape on skis, shoot rifles at targets and use their skills to compete in a biathlon.
“This is an experience,” said Ernesto Aquino, a Marine from Fallbrook, Calif.
The Nordic skiing and biathlon camp was funded by the Semper Fi Fund in Oceanside, Calif. The fund was formed nine years ago by military spouses to provide financial help and support to injured and critically ill members of the U.S. military services. The fund provides its 600 Team Semper Fi members with coaches, specialized athletic equipment, entry fees and travel expenses to athletic events around the country, such as triathlon camps in Florida, archery competitions in Arizona, cycling tours in New York, golf tournaments in Colorado and cattle drives in Wyoming.
The Nordic biathlon camp at Pineland Farms drew 13 wounded vets, many of them Marines from California, for an intensive lesson in the art of shooting and cross-country skiing. Many of the participants were on skis for the first time.
“It is dangerous and foreign but a good form of aerobic exercise,” said Daniel Guzman, 35, of Monterey, Calif., who was wounded while serving in Iraq in 2003.
The Pineland Farms veterans cross-country skiing program was founded two years ago by Kristina Sabasteanski, a two-time Olympic biathlete, occupational therapist and Army veteran, and her husband, Matt Sabasteanski, outdoor director at Pineland Farms, former Marine and National Guard medic in Iraq.
Kristina Sabasteanski said the wounded vets are a high-energy group .
“They ski fast and fall hard,” she said.
On Sunday, the group competed in relay races in what Matt Sabasteanski called the best skiing conditions of the year.
“These are competitive folks,” he said.
Some of the vets said adapting to Maine’s chilly weather was a challenge, but learning to ski quickly warmed them up.
Patrick Keplinger, 36, a former Marine from Menifee, Calif., where it was 80 degrees when he left, said he was nervous at first but soon relaxed. Keplinger was wounded in 2004 and 2006 in Iraq, where he suffered traumatic brain, knee and shoulder injuries. He also developed post-traumatic stress disorder.
He said the Team Semper Fi athletic programs helped him feel whole again – “and allowed me to be part of a brotherhood again.”
Aquino, 37, who was wounded in Iraq in 2004 and Afghanistan in 2012, said he was surprised at how quickly he learned to cope with the cold.
“This is a great place for me. It helps me relax,” Aquino said.
Beth Quimby can be contacted at 791-6363 or at: